Sep 072004

Tomorrow. Did I say tomorrow? I meant the last syllable of recorded time.

Now where were we? Oh yes: nowhere. Philosophy to date has yielded no explanations, no predictions, no tools unless we classify logic generously, and very little practical advice, much of it bad. And then from “cogito ergo sum,” or “existence exists,” philosophers expect to explain the world, or at least a good chunk of it. Tautologies unpack only so far. No matter how much you cram into a suitcase, you cannot expect to fill a universe with its contents.

I was a little unfair to the Greeks in Part 1. They didn’t have 300 years of dazzling scientific advance to build on. What they had was nothing at all, and as Eddie Thomas pointed out in the comments, you have to start somewhere. But 2500 years later, do we have to start from nothing all over again? In what follows I will take for granted that the external world exists, that we are capable of knowing it, and doubtless many other truths of metaphysics and epistemology that everyone knows but philosophers still hotly dispute. If you want to argue that stuff, the comments are still raging on Part 1.

I propose to begin with the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. You can follow the links for some helpful refreshers, but in brief, the First Law states that energy is always conserved. It is neither created nor destroyed, merely transferred. And since we know, from relativistic physics, that matter is merely energy in another form, we conclude that everything that ever happens is an energy transfer.

This profound fact about the universe has gone almost entirely unnoticed by philosophers, whether from ignorance or indifference I cannot say. But it leads almost immediately to two other profound facts. First, all events are commensurable at some level. They are all instances of the same thing. Second, all events are measurable, at least in theory. We need only to be able to measure each thermodynamic consequence, and add them all up.

Now let’s set up a little thermodynamic system. Call it Eustace. Eustace need not be biological, or at all fancy; it is best to think of him as just a cube of space. Eustace would be pretty dull without a few things going on, so to liven up matters we will assume that at least something in the way of atomic state change is going on. Particles will dart in and out of our little cube of space.

To describe Eustace, we have recourse to the Second Law. As ordinarily formulated, it states that energy, if unimpeded, always tends to disperse. Frying pans cool when you take them off the stove. Water ripples outward and fades to nothing when you throw a pebble in a still lake. Iron rusts. Perpetual motion machines run down. Rocks don’t roll uphill.

Vast quantities of ink have been spilled in attempts to explain entropy, but really it is nothing more than the measure of this tendency of energy to disperse.

The Second Law is, fortunately, only a tendency. Energy disperses if unimpeded. But it is often impeded, which makes possible life, machines, and anything that does work, in the technical as well as the ordinary sense of the word. The lack of activation energy impedes the Second Law: some external force must push a rock poised atop a cliff, or take the frying pan off the fire. Covalent bond energy impedes the Second Law as well, which is why solid objects hang together. The Second Law has been formulated mathematically in several ways. The most useful for describing Eustace is the Gibbs-Boltzmann equation for free energy, which states:


This is one of the most important equations in the history of science; it has been shown to hold in every context that we know of. The triangles, deltas, represent change. Gibbs-Boltzmann compares two states of a thermodynamic system — Eustace in our case, but it could be anything. As for the terms: G, or free energy, is simply the energy available to do work. The earth, for example, receives new free energy constantly in the form of sunlight. Free energy is the sine qua non; it is why I can write this and you can read it. It does not, unfortunately, necessarily become work, as no one knows better than I. Let alone useful work: this depends on how it is directed. I do work when I paint your car and work when I scratch it.

H is enthalpy, the total heat content of a system. We are interested here in changes (Δ), and since we know from the First Law that energy is neither created nor destroyed, that nothing is for free, any increase in enthalpy has to come from outside the system. T is temperature, and S is entropy, which can be either positive or negative. Negative entropy is, again, good; it leads to more free energy by subtracting a negative from a negative. Positive entropy is what you lose, and one of the consequences of the Second Law is that you always lose something.

To return to Eustace, we know from the First Law, in the terms of the equation, that ΔG >= 0. We will also assign Eustace a constant temperature, which isn’t strictly necessary but simplifies the math a bit. So we have:

ΔH – TΔS >= 0

We are dealing here with sums of discrete quantities here. Not one big thing, but many tiny things. Various particles are darting around inside Eustace, each with its own thermodynamic consequences. Hess’s Law states that we can add these up in any order and the result will always be the same. So we segregate the entropic processes into the positive and the negative:

ΣH – TΣS negative – TΣS positive >= 0

From here it’s just a little algebra. We take the third term, the sum of the positive entropies, add it to both sides, and then divide both sides by that same term, yielding:

α = (ΣH – TΣS negative) / TΣS positive >= 1

And there we have it. Alpha (α) is just an arbitrary term that we assign to the result, like c for the speed of light. The term TΣS negative (the sum of the negative entropy) is always negative, so the higher the negative entropy, the larger the numerator. And alpha is always greater than or equal to 1, as you would expect. One is the alpha number for a system that dissipates every last bit of its enthalpy, retaining no free energy at all.

Alpha turns out to have several interesting properties. First, it is dimensionless. The numerator and denominator are both expressed in units of energy, which divide out. It is a number, nothing more. Second, it is calculable, at least in principle. Third, it is perfectly general. Alpha applies to any two states of any system. Fourth, it is complete. Alpha accounts for everything that has happened inside Eustace between the two states that we’re interested in.

Which leaves the question of what α is, exactly. It can be thought of as the rate at which the free energy in a system is directed toward coherence, rather than dissipation. It is the measure of the stability of a system. And this number, remarkably, will clear up any number of dilemmas that philosophers have been unable to resolve. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but I intend, eventually, to establish that the larger Eustace’s α number is, the better.

Next (I do not say tomorrow): From physics to ethics in one moderately difficult step.

Update: Edited for clarity. So if you still don’t understand it, imagine what it was like before.

  79 Responses to “The Disconsolation of Philosophy, Part 2: Among the Ruins”

  1. While this is all very interesting, it is not philosophy.

    "In what follows I will take for granted that the external world exists, that we are capable of knowing it, and doubtless many other truths of metaphysics and epistemology that everyone knows but philosophers still hotly dispute."

    Philosophy is, of course, the reason why you can make those assumptions. It’s easy for you to take them for granted, and I’m glad that you do. (But you still haven’t really answered those who question your assumptions, even as they make them. I fear that you haven’t make a dent in that area, as the previous thread demonstrates.)

    But you also assume more of an epistemological context than you let on: the validity of sense-perception and volition, the objectivity of concepts and logic, and few other items left unexplored (while also assumed) by your entire discussion.
    Method is the essence of basic philosophy.

    Basic philosophy has indeed very little to say about the world apart man’s consciousness, except the fact that it exists (and few other closely related and highly delimited items.) You have shot well past this mark here, though. I am dubious of any attempt to describe the physical world with philosophy–at all. (This is the purely deductive use of axioms that you and Ayn Rand properly reject. And Rand, of course, did not attempt to explain much of anything with "existence exists," apart from your own uses of it here, so I’m not sure what you were saying there…) This whole discussion belongs to the realm of physics, of course, and has little or no bearing on philosophy at all.

    "First, all events are commensurable at some level. They are all instances of the same thing. Second, all events are measurable, at least in theory."

    I stopped laughing when I realized that you were serious about this. All "events" are not "the same thing," except from a certain delimited (in your case, scientific) perspective. Skipping is not running, and neither is thinking or doing physics. Or, do you mean from a physical perspective only? (Get it?) Also, if an event was not already "measurable," your theory could not take one further step to prove its "measurability."

  2. My cat assumes that the external world exists. Does that make him a philosopher, or a client of philosophy? If you want to continue to refute Berkeley, be my guest; but there are more profitable areas of investigation.

    I did not claim that all events are "the same thing." I claimed that they are all instances of the same thing, and that they can all be measured with the same yardstick. If I say x and y are both instances of z, the reply that x and y are not identical is hardly to the point. Skipping, running, and doing physics all involve energy transfers, and those can be quantified, at least in theory.

  3. Actually, philosophy isn’t the reason you can make existential assumptions. It is the act of making them.

  4. Philosophy is, of course, the reason why you can make those assumptions.

    That’s quite an assumption when we’re availing ourselves to challenging assumptions that can be openly corroborated.

    But you also assume more of an epistemological context than you let on: the validity of sense-perception and volition, the objectivity of concepts and logic, and few other items left unexplored (while also assumed) by your entire discussion.

    It appears that the discussion from Part I has drifted into the phlogiston. What are now being called ‘assumptions’ were delineated in the context of axiomatic logic (and its limitations) and empirical causality.

    Are there "truths" that exist outside both logic and empiricism? What are they?

    Method is the essence of basic philosophy.

    Method without objective is pointless exercise. Philosophers get an ‘A’ for effort. In the real world (that thing we’re assuming exists outside our minds), intellectual onanism has little appeal or usefulness.

    Since Mr. Godel and Mr. Pauling didn’t quite make the point, let’s see what our esteemed friend, Mr. Wittgenstein stated in Tractatus

    My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

    To avoid debate on exactly what Witty meant, Wittgenstein’s main conclusion–that language can not capture all there is in the world–leads us to search for additional tools. We certainly need more tools–(and there are some oversights in Mr. Haspel’s passage that can be readily addressed)–are there any that surpass those tools based in logic and empiricism? Please enumerate them.

    I stopped laughing when I realized that you were serious about this.

    Will any real knowledge be forthcoming? The line of reasoning from philosophical apologists seems to involve little more than a consistent need to change their underwear.

  5. Aaron, I like that you brought up thermodynamics. I would never have known of thermodynamics if it wasn’t for philosophy and its penchant for questioning.

    There is one philosopher who talked about thermodynamics but I don’t think he knew it. That was Hegel, when he discussed the dialectic. Hegel essentially said that humankind combats its social and mental entropy through the dialectic. He virtually said that conflict, in the form of the dialectical process, keeps humankind alive and awake, from atrophying.

    The laws of thermodynamic also effect Civilization and its continuance. Humankind is part of the universe and thus bound by its laws. The Roman Empire, as well as the Ottoman Empire, collapsed because it ‘entropyed’. Communism collapsed for the same reason, because it couldn’t renew itself. Renewal combats entropy.

    How the dialectic works to combat entropy in the human experience is that it is constantly shifting energy – mental energy, and in the process creating new ideas. In this context the second law states that the social dynamics grows static and stale and the first law rejuvenates it, if the right elements are in place.

    Philosophy helped develop the discipline of economics. It is the discipline that deals with material entropy. Economics shifts energy and matter from a used up state to a renewed state. Economics is familiar with equilibrium and disequilibrium. The first law deals with this inevitable movement.

    The link between Hegel and thermodynamics is fascinating. They mirror each other in that Hegel and the dialectic deal with abstract
    aspects of entropy and thermodynamics deals with physical aspects. They both are about movement, decline and renewal.

    If there is a "theory of everything" I would think it is thermodynamics. Nothing can avoid it, abstract or physical. Even philosophy is under its spell.

  6. Aaron:

    Are you really stumpin’ for physical reductionism? Forgive me, but it’s often far more "profitable" to understand why induction is different from deduction, why anger isn’t the same as happiness, etc. Only qua physicist is your integrated point of any value, anyway. And that’s assuming that you are not saying what I think you’re saying: that the only thing that matters (exists?) is the most fundamentally physical.(?!)

    And it’s way, way more than the good bishop: it’s Plato, the very belief in God and the supernatural, all the doubts ever spoken about the ontological status of logic, it’s Kant, Hegel, Descartes and every other variant of the Primacy of Consciousness, as you know well yourself.

    And what could be more profitable than uprooting ALL of the rationalizations for ALL religion, ALL subjectivism, etc.? Which gets us to your cat: your cat cannot believe otherwise, but people can, and have, and will, until we settle these less "profitable" matters first. Also, your cat does not "assume existence" or its primacy over cnsciousness in the same sense that people ever do, since the issue of "existence" is way too generalized and abstract for cats to consider. Our very capacity to believe things (and do things) in contradiction to these boring old axioms is the source of SO MUCH error in the history of philosophy that your assesment of what’s "profitable" is un-historical, at best. It is also the very reason why we can do science, art and walk on the moon, i. e., the rest of our cognitive differences to an animal.

    The conditions of proof cannot, of course, be proved without a circular argument. However, their basis in reality can be determined, that they are axioms and are empirically based can be shown. That is the unique role of the philosopher.

    Nothing, repeat, NOTHING, in physics can have ANY bearing whatsoever on any aspect of this topic without undermining all of physics as such (and without equal circularity, too!) To grasp the first issue of physics depends on the truth of these axioms.


    I wish! Philosophy shows us why such assumptions are valid and why we CAN make them. Most philosophy in my experience is the ACT of ignoring them.


    Axioms are empirical. In an important sense, all sense-perception is "axiomatic" in status. Just as the experience of green-ness is implicit in every instance of observing a green object, so existence, identity and consciousness are implicit in every instance of observing anything at all.

    As Rand taught, and as you say, only observation and the logical implications of our observations can form the bases of valid knowledge, even philosophical knowledge. It’s clear to me you don’t really know the Objectivist position, and I refuse to give the 101 course on a blog. (Wittgenstein made a habit of "stealing" his concepts, so what? Toss the ladder and you fall–in reality.)

    It takes a whole lotta speaking prose before we can ever grasp that that is what we have been speaking all along. It takes a whole lotta specific knowledge before we can become philosophers. Basic philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) contain the broadest of abstractions, therefore, covers the most ground. It must apply to all knowledge and to any of it, simultaneously. Philosophy is the "meta" science shared by each and every field.

  7. Axioms are empirical.

    Really? Please let us know how one would empirically validate these axioms.

    Just as the experience of green-ness is implicit in every instance of observing a green object, so existence, identity and consciousness are implicit in every instance of observing anything at all.

    Interesting–a spectrometer has no notion of greeness. Rather, it maps wavelengths to abstractions in the form of numerical measurements that we map reliably but indirectly back to our notion of "green". There is no implicit experience of "green-ness" from the green object under observation.

    It’s clear to me you don’t really know the Objectivist position, and I refuse to give the 101 course on a blog.

    Have we capitulated to appeal to privileged knowledge again? One so complex and involved that none of its benefits can be enumerated or otherwise explicitly stated?

    Though admittedly impolite, I must point out that both in this thread and in the last, challenges to philosophical apologists have been countered with a steady stream of justifications built on fallacies.

    Heraclitus, Parmenides, Boltzmann, Gibbs, Godel, Kolmogorov, Ito, Pauling, Wittgenstein, and the rest were all making noise while Ms. Rand was spinning a coherent world view?

    Basic philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) contain the broadest of abstractions, therefore, covers the most ground. It must apply to all knowledge and to any of it, simultaneously.

    It appears that to appreciate philosophy, one needs to be trapped in a cult of personality–or worse, a cult–all rhetoric and no new capabilities or conclusions. Cogent argument requires something more than a private ideology and ready access to the CAPS-LOCK key.

    If intellectual and emotional packing peanuts are the aim, then the tools of logic and empiricism are far too sharp-edged. Crystals and incense might serve a better role in super-natural, extra-physical experience.

    Originally, I had thought Mr. Haspel’s critique of philosophy as little more than dorm-room musings a bit too harsh. But given the meaningless, evasive and highly rhetorical nature of its defense (excepting the Greeks, of course), I’m beginning to believe he wasn’t nearly harsh enough.

  8. I have tried to be civil with you. I have even tried to compliment you (see Part 1). I have not leveled any personal charges against you. The harshest I have been with you is to claim that the lack of concepts like "important" and "good" makes your world view too barren for my taste. I have noted your apparent ignorance of a subject with which I am familiar. This went to substance. In return, you have used words like "Randroid" and accused me of cheap rhetoric and evasion. Let me oblige
    with some more "evasion": let’s not exchange another word, o.k.?

  9. Forgive me if I am not particularly interested in civility or compliments or any other bureaucracy of social courtesy. And please, don’t hold back on any personal charges if you think they might elicit a chuckle. (‘Randroid’ was a big hit, by the way.) This field desperately needs some humor and these electrons don’t leave a bruise.

    Humility is not a state of mind conducive to the advancement of learning.
    Sir Peter Medawar

    And, might I add, neither is a fragile ego.

    The trouble is that we don’t even know what your position entails–it seems to consist of private taste and oblique personal experience that occasionally boils over into manic emotional volatility. That’s where I’ve directed my comments.

    I only know Objectivism through what I’ve read in the papers.

    My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
    Ayn Rand, Appendix to Atlas Shrugged

    Assumptions? I can’t even reconcile the conclusions. This strikes me more as pop redemptive therapy than philosophy.

    If you would care to explain this florid pablum in some coherent way (and by all means feel free to get your money’s worth from the CAPS-LOCK key), I would have somewhere else to direct my attention.

    Or, perhaps we could be heroic ideologues and engage in a duel?


  10. Bourbaki:

    Since you did not take my offer, and since you cannot even grasp what I said except to know that it is utterly useless, and since what I am saying, by your own assertion is valueless, I don’t see why you wish to continue. For myself, I try to build a bridge of understanding in discussions of this sort ’cause I figure a smart person probably has a good reason for thinking the way he or she does. So, I try to get at that in hopes that I will learn something, or he will, or, maybe, we both will. Since I am honest, and assume for the moment that he is too, I figure we can sometimes do this. I also don’t like unnecessary bile.

    Funny, I don’t feel any bruise, and all of my own former efforts at humor, though also appreciated by others (what IS that "we" business?) have gone unnoticed under your paper-thin hide. I stop when then insults start. Not because a real blow has landed–obviously quite the reverse has occurred–but because they fail to move the ball of understanding. They also pull away the underlying premise of all discussion: the bare minimum in mutual respect. I have lost all of mine for you. And I still can’t imagine why you would want one anyway–except to hear the sound of your own overblown, name-dropping rhetoric flapping in the breeze.

    Feel better now?

    For the reasons indicated, don’t expect another response.

  11. Gentlemen,

    Enough of this pissing match. I would be a lot more interested if someone could find a flaw in the argument. You know, the argument. Remember the argument?

  12. Nuts. I wanted to see if any of those threats of silence was actually going to stick or if we might perhaps end up with something resembling a position. .

    Ah, yes, the argument. Perhaps there is still hope in turning philosophy into something with real capabilities and consequences?

    So instead of ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘existence exists’, we’re starting with the First and Second Law. Sure we can be accused of scientism but their susceptiblity to analysis shouldn’t make them inferior to ‘cogito’. Quite the opposite, we might even achieve some consilience.

    Although we can’t explain why these two laws work, we’ve also never found anything wrong with them–be it string theory or frying pans. They deal with energy–the most fundamental concept we know.

    These laws are certainly CPPD compliant so they lend themselves well to the only tools of investigation that have come up in our lengthy (and entertaining) discussion.

    Finally, their foundation is not anthropic while their consequences, if somehow bridged to human affairs, could prove to be. I guess we’ll have to wait and see–assuming no one finds meaningful fault with what has already been presented.

    OK–off to the principal’s office.

    I know the way

  13. The Onion anticipates Aaron’s argument:

  14. There is an important issue to keep in mind when considering the tools we employ.

    Although Godel’s results in the context of all mathematics state that there are truths that are not provable, in 1937, Gerhard Gentzen established the consistency of arithmetic using transfinite induction:

    Gentzen’s was the most outstanding contribution to Hilbert’s programme of axiomatising mathematics. In 1937 he addressed the Congress in Paris giving a talk with title Concept of infinity and the consistency of mathematics.

    The constraints imposed by the First Law means that energy is an additive quantity (note the sigmas) and arithmetic may prove, fundamentally, to be the only mathematical tool we need.

    Physical and logical consistency in the first step? Maybe that disqualifies alpha theory as a tool for philosophy.

    I guess the mighty shoulders on which we stand are:

    (a) 0 < 1
    (b) energy (in any form) can not be made from nothing

    Please forward challenges to (a) or (b) to the principal’s office.

  15. Qua philosopher, this needs no answer. So, at the risk of invading your field of study, I’ll give you my take on this kind of thing, while keeping my "philosopher" hat on as much as possible. If I offend or appear stupid, please bear in mind that I am no mathematician. Please make your correction(s) simple enough for even ME to understand.

    Mathematics is not philosophy any more than physics is philosophy. If a medical researcher discovered a hormone in us that seemed to contradict the whole of our previous understanding of how the body works, this would not be a "philosophical" dilemma. It would be one for physicians and bio-chemists. As previously indicated, it could have no bearing on deeper philosophical issues. There are a lot of things we don’t know and several problems in various sciences (even specialized areas of philosophy itself) that haven’t been solved. This does not pose a threat to epistemology as such. How could it?

    But just as philosophy becomes invalid cosmology, the arm-chair second-guessing of nature, when it encroaches on the turf of physics, so do scientists get into trouble when they invade the territory of philosophy. There is, of course, a valid "philosophy" of law, medicine, etc., pertaining to the particular and somewhat unique application of epistemology and ethics (we’re waiting for that discussion, so I’ll hold off) to that specialized field.

    To be sure, mathematics is a very special subject. Like applied logic, which as Aaron points out is really the very same subject, it starts from the premise that contradictions do not exist and spins itself out in a largely deductive fashion thereafter. When a contradiction seems to appear in math, this is the math’s problem, not reality’s. Math must conform to non-contradiction, the basic premise of logic, not vice versa, since this is the first and sometimes only "fact" that it relies upon.

    I once had a logic professor who stated that she preferred math over other subjects because she never had to do experimentation or empirical studies or controlled observation, and because, "the facts really don’t matter in math!"

    This is a bit of an overstatement, since math is often concerned with very real facts requiring careful measurement and calculation, and the results have been powerful: it’s application to physics (transforming that science into a very powerful one indeed) and to engineering. But math, as such, is just the measuring stick, our slide-rule, a device.

    This has allowed its unfortunate leaps into the lunacy of fantasy literature, allegedly "possible" or theoretical geometries that "may or may not" have any application to reality, to which we are too often subjected. Mathematicians should keep doing these thought-experiments, by all means, for sometimes they DO find applicability to fact, well after their discovery. But a thought-experiment our mathematical theory remains until we DO find an application to reality for the new function, formula, theorem, whathaveyou.

    I agree with your take on Gdel to this extent: no purely mathematical/logical system can be "complete" by itself. We will always need to repair to the "facts." Abso-f—ing-lutely!

    If a God had actually constructed the universe, would we have been left with pi? If a modern mathematician had constructed reality, we would surely be floating in an 18th dimension by now.

  16. Mr. Haspel’s assumption that the external world exists allows the audience at home to exist. I’m willing to go with that assumption since it also allows me to exist.

    So now philosophy, just like any field of discourse, must reconcile two issues

    (1) Mr. Haspel’s perceptions
    (2) Mr. Haspel’s expression of these perceptions

    The audience at home has no way to directly experience Mr. Haspel’s perceptions so instead they must rely on (2). How does he convince the audience at home that these perceptions are valid? I see only three options

    (a) forced indoctrination
    (b) rhetoric
    (c) CPPD

    (c) is what qualifies a field of scholarship. It offers explanatory power and potential for new capabilities — even in the face of uncertainty to which mathematics is not immune. Alpha theory was conceived around these principles and, if wrong, will be invalidated by these principles. All its assertions are open to challenge in the original post.

    What can be proved within and through language is less than the capacity of human thought. Employing (a) or (b) does not make any of Mr. Haspel’s private truths any more valid for the audience at home. It doesn’t invalidate his experience of beauty or importance–it invalidates his ability to impose them on others.

    Philosophy enjoys no exception to this. If there are other tools beyond CPPD we can use to repair the facts for the audience at home, please share them with us.

  17. I will be repeating myself, so do forgive me for being so tiresome. The directly perceived cannot be inferred from anything, even your CPPD–ever. CPPD is useless in this regard.

    Mr. Haspel makes an assumption. I see these points as perfectly validated through my own direct perception. Just as my perception of "green" is incommunicable except through concepts, already a cognitive achievement, so is my direct awareness of the axioms. If pointing doesn’t do it, nothing can or ever could, and conversation must cease if that doesn’t do it. (As it must anytime someone refuses to acknowledge the perceptually obvious, e.g., "there is a table here."[assuming a sighted person who admits knowing what a table is, of course.])

    This does not make my perception of "green" or "existence" subjective. The audience at home has only their own personal experience of "green," and so they have only their personal experience of existence to truly validate it. No argument of any sort can convince when it comes to the directly perceived. Indeed, argument is useless. When I point to a green object and say "this is what I mean by ‘green’" and the audience refuses to budge, I walk away. Forced indoctrination would be counterproductive.

    Direct sense-perception is the "tool" you use. It is the tool needed to generate your CPPD in the first place, so it’s at least as powerful. Certainly no less powerful, since the CPPD depends directly upon it. And it is not "beyond" but "well before" the CPPD.

  18. I is all confuddled. I don’t quite understand where the argument here is going. Mr. Valliant are you arguing for the usefulness of sense perception? Here is where my confusion steps in – did anyone argue that it wasn’t?
    If you are instead asserting that direct sense perception is the fountainhead from which any knoweldge proceeds you are making a trivial observation: we need our senses to do…anything. If you asserting anything stronger than this about sense perception’s "necessary" role in acquiring knowledge you are just wrong. Further Mr. Valliant if you think that the only questions of "philosophy" with which the sciences deal are those of stratified and field-specific epistemology and ethics, then you have *no* understanding of what science does and has done. As comforting as it may be for philosophers to think that they are the ones asking the important questions while everyone else scurries after them – it just aint true. The philosopher: the most arrogant and simultaneously pathologically insecure of all thinkers.
    All of which is nifty and super and dandy, but aside from the bold and unsupported proclamations that Aaron is mistaken if he thinks he can answer philosophically intractable problems with nothing more than algebra and simple physics I have yet to see anyone find fault in the intial offering of alpha theory thus far.
    Of course I have yet to see much any argument whatsoever is the Disconsolation series’ comments, but since I don’t want to join Bourbaki in the principle’s office I’ll keep mum.
    Take all of this as you will as I am willing to accept that the external world exists and I do so without anyone even making the argument that it does to me.

  19. I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to say but I’ll take a crack at it.

    If pointing doesn’t do it, nothing can or ever could, and conversation must cease if that doesn’t do it.

    I’ve never been able to point at an electron or at x-rays or a Cantor set.

    No argument of any sort can convince when it comes to the directly perceived. Indeed, argument is useless.

    At last–validation of my deeply religious (or schizophrenic?) experiences where I’ve spoken to my coyote spirit guide while wearing my chili boots.

    When I point to a green object and say "this is what I mean by ‘green’" and the audience refuses to budge, I walk away.

    Solipsistic authority? Now where’s the sport in that?

    Forced indoctrination would be counterproductive.

    It seems to work splendidly for religions and cults. And if you can get them while they’re young or emotionally desparate, it’s almost effortless–especially if you’re an authority figure.

    Direct sense-perception is the "tool" you use.

    I’m ready to be enlightened–please offer evidence of that assertion without using CPPD.

    Certainly no less powerful, since the CPPD depends directly upon it.

    I’ve never encountered CPPD spirit guides, religions or psychic powers yet these continue to be claimed as direct sense perceptions for individuals. Knowledge does not exclusively arise from highly fallible sensory experience.

    I’m afraid you’re repeating a century-old debate between Mach and Boltzmann. Boltzmann’s position prevailed and led to great progress in quantum mechanics and to the highly useful Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution.

    On Ernst Mach:
    Moravian scientist who was strongly influenced by Fechner, the physicist-turned-philosopher who unsuccessfully tried to found the science of "psychophysics". The basis of Mach’s natural philosophy was that all knowledge is a matter of sensations, so that what people call "laws of nature" are only summaries of experience provided by their own fallible senses.

    Apologies if I had some fun. It’s Friday, after all.

  20. Mr. Valliant I will reiterate since it seems to have gone unnoticed. Your claim re. sense perception is either trivial or wrong. I leave it up to you to choose which, but I am opting for the former.
    Your devotion to the primacy of sense perception amounts to no more then: we need our senses (or some analogue) to explore the world and therefore make conclusions about it and thereby acquire knowledge. Yes this is true. Were there no way to obtain information in some manner it would be difficult to analyze that information. It is a great help that I have sense perception so that I can read.
    But, once again, you are mistaken if you think they are necessary beyond this simple conduit role.

    Conceding that you need sense perception to read the statement let me present a statement to you and you explain to me *precisely* how direct sense perception is needed to conclude the truth of said statement. As I am nowhere near as qualified as many others here and elsewhere I will keep it simple for my own sake.
    The statement is 2 + 2 = 4. What sense perception, *beyond those required to read it in the first place* are required to know this to be true?
    And here’s the kicker bit. Using statements as simple (or nearly so) or at least statements that fall out tidily and without sleight of hand, I can create increasingly sophisticated statements that are also true, w/o once resorting to direct sense perception of the external world. 2 and 2 is four is true even if there is no external world about which to have sense perception.
    But sweet jebus are we back to this nonsense – meta-meta questions about things as opposed to the meat of Aaron’s post about alpha? It would appear that we are. Insert resigned shrug here.

  21. I also must admit I don’t understand what point Mr. Valliant is attempting to make, how it relates to Mr. Haspel’s post, or what his position is.

    But I have to agree with Mr. CT that Mr. Valliant’s assertion about sense perception and knowledge is completely wrong.

    To Mr. CT’s request, I add this simple one:

    Please explain the sense perception basis for the square root of -1

  22. Bourbaki,

    Oh, I believe in the invisible and all kinds of things I cannot directly perceive, as I’ve already suggested. But the existence of x-rays and electrons has been rationally inferred from what we do see. The evidence for their existence, ultimately, is sense perception and the concepts and theories we build from it. If this is not also your position, then you are what I call a "mystic."

    Knowledge of the world can only arise from my contact with it via some causal means like physical sense organs. Consciousness, too, possesses identity. There is no "magic" or causeless knowledge. All science, in a sense, is simply the "unpacking" of sense-data.

    The senses never lie. They causally react in the fashion that they must. They don’t interpret their own results, and it is that interpretation that is in error whenever we claim that the senses have "deceived" us. We put a stick in water. It looks bent. We look down the railroad tracks. They appear to converge. Of course our eyes are giving us more information in doing all of this, i.e., the different media the light from the pencil is coming through, and the insight of perspective so we can also judge distance. Jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that the pencil is actually bent or that the tracks really do converge is not the fault of the senses which are reacting the same way under the same conditions every time. Fortunately, we can put our hand into the glass and discover for a fact that the pencil is not bent, and we can walk down the tracks and discover that they never do converge. It is the coordination of ALL of my sensory data that fuels the abstract mind to discover invisible relations and micro-small entities. But the source and origin of all of this is the senses. Their function is automatic and largely physical, but, somehow, they always get the blame, when it is the "higher" levels of consciousness which require an effort and which people routinely evade. As Rand observed, we are not blind BECAUSE we have eyes.

    We bounce a laser beam off a mirror on the moon to do a precision test in astronomy or physics. We conduct a chemical experiment to test a new drug’s reaction with other substances. We observe the behavior of apes in the wild. We carefully measure the quantities of liquids used to power jet engines. To learn, we look, and all knowledge, to be valid, must reduce in this way to the evidence of the senses. Or do you possess a crystal ball we can all use?

    Now, when something has been reduced to the sense-perception level, nothing BUT looking can convince. For example, if one scientist refuses to believe the evidence of his senses about whether the litmus paper actually changed color, he will always end up being wrong (something else discovered by the senses, say, the death of the guinea pig). If you insist that he actually pay attention to the color-change (i.e., the evidence of his senses) next time, and he still refuses, there is NO CURE, i.e., no way to convince him, beyond pointing to what YOU see, the dead guinea pig and the color of the litmus paper.

    Every bit of your CPPD had its origins in and can be reduced back to the evidence of sense perception, or is it mystical clap-trap. I begin to wonder about your "spirit guides."

  23. Aaron’s post was (I think) an attempt to demonstrate both that there is hope for philosophy (by jumping in with physics) and that everything in philosophy until now has been basically worthless. I was coming to the defense of philosophy by pointing out that knowledge more fundamental than physics constitutes a distinct field of study that a very few great minds have developed successfully.

    This detour into sense perception was not of my choosing, but it began with my attempted defense of basic axiomatic knowledge. Math and logic, I have already noted, are unique among the sciences in their limited use of sense perception. But both CT and Bourbaki have bought into one of the most common and powerful philosophical errors of all time: that concepts of number and mathematical function are not themselves derived from sense perception, the existence of the "a priori."

    When I say that all knowledge comes from sense=perception, I mean it. "One," as basic as it is in arithmetic, is a broad abstraction. But I am with Aristotle on this one. There is no "one-ness" apart from one apple, one man, one horse, i.e., entities that can be considered apart from all others. We do not see floating attributes when we open our eyes. We see entities and we can perceptually isolate one from from another. This is the sensory basis for the concept "one." We use arithmetic to measure and to count things. Things that can be measured and counted. The development of math, real math, has tracked our progress in architecture, engineering and physics.

    Indeed, math and logic squeeze out by pure deduction every implication of the finest of facts: the Law of Non Contradiction itself, the very basis of deductive (and inductive) logic, the premise of its method. But, as I have argued, the axiom of Identity is itself empirical in origin. Aristotle said that this was true of being qua being. It is true of everything we see. A broad abstraction, yes, but an abstraction nonetheless, valuable only for its applicability to and use in this most sensory world of our experience.

    The development of geometry has been eloquent in this regard. We see lines, points and circles. How? With our senses. Euclid starts defining things. Platonists come along putting definitions in front of reality, and say, "No, there are no ‘perfect’ lines and circles in reality, these ideas must come from a higher dimension." Analytic geometry and calculus come along just in the nick of time to help the progress of…physics, to explain the astronomy and mechanics being developed simultaneously… hmmm.

    The Platonists have really helped to divorce math and logic from reality, causing bizarre mathematical fantasies of various kinds, Xeno’s Paradox, the reification of Zero, the misuse of the concept "infinity." This is what happens when the abstractions of math and logic are claimed to produce knowledge "independent" of the senses. Math is built on a simple, but universal, fact observed each and every time we open our eyes. This is the nature of axioms. But the value of the axioms is only to help coordinate our knowledge of all those other sensory facts. Math cuts its moorings and floats away to subjective parts unknown when it forgets all of this.

    Let me put it this way: the ONLY contribution math has ever made is to help the other sciences. It’s method is simply too abstract to do anything else, however pretty or "elegant" our system may appear to us.

    This is one of the important features of philosophy: keeping smart guys like Bourbaki from taking us on excursions into the corridors of their minds rather than the facts of reality.

  24. We digress. This argument is not over truth but provenance. So long as all parties to this dispute assent to the propositions of mathematics and thermodynamics, the question of whether they are ultimately reducible to sense perception does not gravely concern me.

    In this post I attempted to establish several propositions, rather controversial ones, if you think about it:

    1. That all events are energy transfers.

    2. That, as such, they can be measured, at least in theory.

    3. That there is a number, call it α, which indicates the relative coherence, or stability, of a thermodynamic system.

    Does everyone agree? If so, we can proceed. If not, what are the objections?

  25. Mr. Valliant has conveniently ignored the request that is in bold.

    Let me put it this way: the ONLY contribution math has ever made is to help the other sciences. It’s method is simply too abstract to do anything else, however pretty or "elegant" our system may appear to us.

    Thank you for prioritizing utility, beauty and elegance for everyone. Math departments everywhere can save vast sums of money with this knowledge. Do we need to buy tapes or attend seminars to be convinced?

    Again, Mr. Valliant, for the audience at home, please explain the sense perception basis for the square root of -1.

    Please, no more or no less.

  26. Apologies. I posted late. Mr. Haspel’s request takes precedence.

  27. Aaron, you have descended into Wolfram-like dementia. Snap out of it.

    Now as to Eustice. Eustice is a one cubic liter volume of space on the ground one kilometer north from a nuclear explosion. Eustice prime is a one cubic liter volume of space on the ground one kilometer north from a nuclear explosion. The explosion in Eustice’s case takes place by virtue of an American plane (or an Israeli one, if Kerry is elected) dropping a bomb directly on an Iranian (off-line)nuclear reactor. The explosion in Eustaice prime’s case occurs in Times Square. A appears about the same in both cases.

    Are you going to build an ethical precept saying these situations are the same somehow because a is the same? Come on.

  28. Well, finally. I’m going to transfer some beer energy, and wait a couple of months for the follow-on.

    Chop-chop, though…this is good stuff.

  29. Now don’t be hasty. There will be a payoff, and in areas that philosophy has traditionally arrogated to itself, like ethics. But the argument is complicated and best digested a little at a time.

    As a preview, though, I will answer Bill’s question. α, for Eustace and Eustace prime, when you work through the calculation, isn’t the same. Not even close. This is because the First Law requires you always to account for system plus surroundings. Everything counts.

  30. I agree with Mr. Kaplan that we should watch Mr. Haspel’s development carefully.

    Next thing you know, Mr. Haspel will be proposing that all life is defined by the same tetranucleotide sequence. A cockroach and Mozart instances of the same thing? And defined by only four elements? That is both morally repugnant and irresponsible.

    But perhaps before we level charges of Wolframism, we should consider the whole argument. That is, unless there is a flaw in the reasoning that has been thus far presented.

    Finally, we all owe a debt of gratitude to this discussion for setting us straight on the value of pure versus applied mathematics–especially for revealing that complex analysis was, in fact, a direct consequence of Pythagoras or the Babylonians. I find the ideologue’s reactionary approach of making elves and gremlins out of things that don’t have a priori application both liberating and refreshing.

  31. Yes, Aaron, I think that I agree, and with only a slight qualification in formulation: all physical events may be seen as instances of energy transfers. I cannot logically preclude the unknown in this context, but that may be unique to my context, I admit.

    But your posts, especially part 1, also contained an unfair hit-and-run on the whole of philosophy. Also, these propositions, in both parts, really belong to theoretical physics, not philosophy, as I understand it.

    Bourbaki: Surely I’ve given enough of a lead for you to solve this one on your own. What was the origin of the idea of square roots in the first place? What problems were being solved with the device? Under what conditions is it possible and necessary to make that calculation–in the real world? Those are the sensory origins of "square roots." Like "zero," negative numbers are a mental device, also useful for certain real-world operations, but only valid in those operations. There is only a "negative" number of something in a definite context of calculation, but we are certainly able to abstract the absence of something from the former presence of it–by sense-perception. It is this abstraction from comparing perceptual states that gives rise to the idea of a "negative" quantity. But, again, only real in real-world applications, in a very definite context of application.

    If the square root of a negative number does not arise from the needs of real-world calculations, then I leave you, Bourbaki, to play with whatever elves and gremlins you wish, perhaps to calculate how many negative square roots can dance on the head of a pin.

    Finally I have to echo Bill, here: where are you going with this kind of conjecture?

  32. Look, mathematics can derive a lot from a little, and sound deduction from the truth will always yeild the truth. As I have already said, even math we don’t currently have a real-world application for might still prove valuable in the future. But, absent such a real-world application, and absent empirical evidence as to what exactly our math is saying about the real-world, please do tell us the metaphysical origin and/or status of such mathematical abstractions in your view, Bourbaki. Recollections of the World of Forms? Innate ideas? Kantian Categories? Remember, no cheating with a single idea derived from sense-perception, now!

  33. 1. That all events are energy transfers.

    When I was 16 or so, my soon-to-be Harvard educated friend saw me sitting enraptured by a life and death struggle taking place on my front lawn. A preying mantis — which I had never seen before — was fighting a wasp. When you are close enough, it is like a Godzilla movie with real monstrous combatants. I had been transfixed for about half an hour watching the battle. He came by, watched for maybe 30 seconds and said, "Just a simple series of biochemical exchanges." Yeah, but…

    So far as I can tell, Edmund Husserl said only one thing that made any sense. I paraphrase because I can’t find the quote, "Everything is about sex, but, of course, nothing is exclusively about sex, including sex." So it is with energy transfers and the stability of systems.

    Ponzi schemes, Soviet states, skyrocketing tech stocks are all stable systems just so long as…
    doesn’t happen. All represent a type of energy transfer — from investors to promoters, from individuals to the state, and from frothy buyers to reluctant sellers. And all are stable for a time. But there is no time function in your equations. The lack of a time function (actually, like in your equations, the cancelling out of deltas, in relativistic mathematics made Einstein err in thinking that that time was illusory. Well Einstein is now timeless, but he had to pass through time to become so.
    Your equations will have to account for time to become philosophical. Summing a series will not do. Otherwise the decay of one Eustace will yield the same result as the ascendancy of another.

  34. Mr. Valliant

    Are you asking for an explanation of creativity? We don’t need to be quite so heroic to provide an example of non-sensory cognition.

    You’re implying that the brain’s abilities are restricted to operations based purely on sense perception (unless you have more five senses) while, in fact, our brains are capable of processing ideas about ideas. This capacity for conceptual self-reference is what leads to logical contradictions and abstractions that are thermodynamically impossible in the physical world. The consequences (ideas) of these processes can be driven entirely from internal processes of self-reference and can be wholly imaginary and nonsensical or serendipitous.

    Just to be clear, I’m convinced that there is a physical origin for all of this activity.

    However, these manipulations can be carried out absent external sensory input and corroboration. An important origin of this manner of cognition has been shown to be rooted in genetics. I would not consider abstract information transferred by a tetranucleotide to be a sense.

    Davies, W. et al. (2001) Imprinted genes and mental dysfunction. Annals of Medicine 33: 428-436.

    Isles, A. R. and Wilkinson, L. S. (2000) Imprinted genes, cognition and behaviour. Trends in Cognition 4: 309-318.

  35. First, congrads on the discovery that some ideas are built on other ideas, very good. (Just remember that this conceptual architecture is often of a mandatory order of development.) This is, indeed, the source of creativity.

    But some very creative ideas have no basis in fact: ghost, elf, God, etc. The only way to tell if an idea that has popped into our heads is true, however, is by attempting its reduction to sense-data.

    Internal consistency is, as I have argued, ultimately an appeal to the perceptual, i.e., the Law of Identity. But internal consistency is hardly sufficient as demonstration, either. Perfectly internally consistent nonsense can be entertaining, but it also need not bear any relation to reality.

    Now, evaporating away the rest of the blather, you say that GENES are our alternate source of knowledge(!) Of course, if genes really are the source of any of my beliefs, those beliefs may be nonsense, for why should an "biologically evolved" idea coorespond to reality? Wouldn’t I still need to compare it to the facts to know if this genetically implanted idea is TRUE or not? Then, wouldn’t that comparison be the genuine source of knowledge?How am I to tell if the implanted idea IS true? Am I stuck with this genetically implanted belief? Can my empirically-based cognitions cancel it out? If so, how and why? Get the point?

    Mystics, I have observed, always end up needing something like innate ideas, but can you tell me which genetically imlanted knowledge has helped the development of science? Which scientist and when? And why wasn’t that genetically implanted knowledge obvious to everyone else…and much sooner? Different genes make for different truths, different realities, or what?

    And, please tell me something that I know that I did not learn. Now, my heart and lungs and stomach function automatically, but this isn’t knowledge at all–for a long time, I didn’t have the first clue how this all happens but it seemed to hum along just fine. We certainly have innate capacities, seeing, using language, emotions, memory, etc., but what is their innate content? Emotions, however irrational, always have a cognitive basis, too. Let’s see, do babies even know that the world does not go away when they close their eyes? No, they learn that one… Just let me know.

  36. Mr. Valliant

    Please re-read the first two sentences of my response.

    I’m in for another trip to the principal’s office. But before we digress again, might I request that the discussion remain focused on only what has been presented by Mr. Haspel and any issues, geopolitical or otherwise, not directly related to Mr. Haspel’s post be continued on the previous thread?

    I will gladly continue there.

  37. Aaron Haspel:

    I like your attempt to build some Philosophy from some correct Thermodynamics.

    You are, I take it, heading towards nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, and some nonreductionist emergent behavior concepts. There’s still a LOT of time for you to write a paper on these philosophical implications for the 6th International Conference on Complex Systems, in summer 2006, in or near Boston. Google that title for more data.

    I also agree that Axiomatic Truth is a different truth system from empirical truth (and both of those from legal/political truth, aesthetic truth, and "revealed" religious truth).

    Keep it up.


    Jonathan Vos Post
    Professor of Mathematics,
    Astronomy, Computer Science,
    and English Composition (at 4 different colleges and universities)
    Over 15,000,000 hits/year

  38. Aaron,

    No-brainer to say "yes" to the good professor, right?!


    One last dig, I’m sorry, then I’ll stop without following over. So, while genes do not provide us knowledge of even the physical mechanics of human sex (a discovery, if not a revelation, of childhood), nor the difference between food and poison (even a perceptual system that is, at best, "so-so" in this regard), nor even the basic ideas of math (which,as every primary school teacher knows, must be taught to ever be learned, hence, schools), our genes provide us with such things as negative square roots and the like, according to Bourbaki. If you say so…

  39. Correction of implication: Basic math, of course, can and would be discovered by some on their own, after some thought, but still learned.

  40. Mr. Valliant

    Your ideas are intriguing to me and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Out of respect for the repeated requests to stay on topic, perhaps we should continue discussing your ideology on the previous thread?

    I left an exercise for you there.

  41. Not ALL events are energy transfers. The advance of time is not an energy transfer, although the only way to measure it is.

  42. Bill, you have it backwards. To put the matter aphoristically, since we haven’t reached the stage of the argument where I can put it precisely: it’s not time that makes events, it’s events that make time.

  43. On that score, I think that I agree with Aaron: events make time, not vice versa. But we must still restrict the assertion to physical events and only to one aspect of them. These "energy transfers" might involve all kinds of relationships, results, qualities, etc., that emerge in unique contexts.

  44. Aaron,

    "It’s not time that makes events, it’s events that make time."

    I used to think that, but two observations led me to conclude otherwise. I will condense the observations, but if they prove too obscure I will be happy to explicate.

    1) In relativity it is possible for an event to occur in frame of reference A which is not viewed as an event at all in frame of reference B, yet time has passed within each frame of reference. Thus time advances independantly from events, albeit events in different coordinate systems.

    2) How can one explain the prevailing theory that the universe was born out of a singularity without time being independant in some important respects? In the theory, all matter and energy is singular. Isn’t time a necessary condition for the big bang to have occcurred?


    I have just decoupled time from events. If I am correct, so are you. Since time is not an event, then my objection to the proposition "all events are energy transfers" is defeated.

  45. Bill:

    Even by your own terms, the fact that time advances independently of an event in another frame of reference (where time certainly cannot advance independently of its own events) is no answer. Even if there actually are such totally independent "frames of reference," no temporal frame of reference has "time" apart from the "events" by which we measure it.

    Time is how we would measure the progress the events that comprised the Big Bang (if it is true.) No events, no time. Before any events ("when" would that be, exactly?), there would be nothing to measure or know about time, right? How would we ever be aware of the passing of "time" without events as their measure? And, absent events, what IS this "time" thing?

    Time is simply a relationship between events, just as space is simply a relationship between objects ("masses" and "energies," if you prefer).

    I am always concerned when theoretical physics steps outside of the context the gives rise to a concept, e.g., time, but persists in using that concept without telling us precisely what they now mean by it and what evidence there is for this new idea.

  46. Last paragraph should read: "that gives rise to." oops!

  47. Jim,

    I have given up on the idea that time is an exception to the energy transfer hypothesis Aaron advances. That is sufficient for this thread.

    Time is a very difficult subject. For example, Tomonaga’s "super-many-time" theory is something I have looked at, if not studied, for may years with bewilderment. Yet, QED physicists seem to understand it if I cannot.

  48. I haven’t thought much about it, but how do events make time as Aaron thinks. Events happen in time. Time is like the ether in which events occur.

    Is Aaron thinking that time is like change? Events make or cause change. But, then, change, which is inevitable, causes events.

  49. Mr. Airth:

    If time is the "ether" in which events occur, then you are suggesting that there is such a thing as "time" distinct from everything else (including events). That is at least how I read your statement (please correct me if I have misunderstood) and if this is what you are saying how do you propose we measure and categorize and define time? What was time pre-BB?

  50. Mr. Airth:

    If time is the "ether" in which events occur, then you are suggesting that there is such a thing as "time" distinct from everything else (including events). That is at least how I read your statement (please correct me if I have misunderstood) and if this is what you are saying how do you propose we measure and categorize and define time? What was time pre-BB?

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